President Bush, seeking to capitalize on several rare shreds of good news in Iraq -- the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the fact that the new "unity government" has finally filled its Cabinet -- summoned the White House press corps to the Rose Garden this morning. His purpose was to rally the skeptical citizenry, paint the Democrats as quitters, and to generally insist that the future in Iraq is potentially bright, in accordance with his own party's philosophy, which he described as "forward looking and optimistic."
But as Bush enumerated the tasks that await the new government helmed by prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, he was inadvertently sending a very different message:
Iraq is a terrible mess, it will take an unspecified period of time to clean it up, we have no measurements that would tell us the degree to which it is getting cleaned up, and we Americans will have to stay for an unspecified period of time to see whether it does get cleaned up.
1. Three years after Bush proclaimed liberation, the government is infested with corruption. Bush said it himself this morning: "We want to establish an internal affairs bureau, to root out corruption. No question this government has got to deal with corruption at all levels in order to earn the confidence of the people."
2. In what Bush calls "free Iraq," the Iraqi judges have little concept of democratic-style justice, they can't function because of the violence, and there isn't enough jail space to house the guilty anyway. Bush telegraphed all that: "Part of the prime minister's plan is to improve the Iraqi judicial system. And to assist him, I've directed the attorney general and the secretaries of State and Defense to work together on a new rule-of-law initiative. Under this initiative, we'll help train Iraqi judges, increase security so they can do their jobs, improve Iraqi prison capacity, and help the Iraqi government provide equal justice for all its citizens."
3. The average Baghad resident doesn't even have receive enough electricity to live decently (in fact, according to the Brookings Institution's ongoing infrastructure index, a Baghdad denizen had 16-24 hours of electricity on a daily basis under Saddam Hussein; the May figure was 8 hours). Bush spoke repeatedly today about the electricity problem, saying at one point, "The answer to electricity is, sooner the better. It's hot over there, and it would be helpful if people had the capacity to cool their homes. It would be a pretty good signal that the government is making a difference in somebody's life."
4. Key regions of Iraq are essentially lawless at this point, and government police are part of the problem; thanks to mass infiltration, many of the purported peace officers are actually sectarian militia members who torture and kill at will, unfettered by government command and control. Bush basically confirmed all that: "We've deployed advisory teams to assist Iraq's new...Ministers of Defense and Interior, both of whom I met. We want to help them build the command and control capacity of their ministries. In other words, you can't have an effective army unless you've got command and control coming out of government....This is a tough struggle, and the reason why is because the rules of warfare as we used to know them are out the window. I mean, there's no rule of warfare. It's just, if you can kill innocent life in order to shake somebody's will or create consternation in a society, just go ahead and do it."
From a communications standpoint, Bush's new approach -- acknowledging problems -- is arguably more effective than his previous habit of eschewing detail while simply insisting that "freedom is on the march." But he still omitted some important facts today; for instance, the new Interior minister - whose job is to weed death-squad militia killers out of the police -- was rportedly chosen as the result of a deal between Maliki and a powerful Shiite political party that runs one of the offending militias.
Given all these challenges (and many more, including the need to establish what Bush called "repair teams" to restore electricity and oil production when insurgents blow it up), one might ask how the Bush administration plans to measure Mailiki's progress or failure, and whether it has settled on a reasonable time period. In fact a White House reporter asked Bush that very question:
"I'm wondering if you can say how you're going to measure that in terms of time. In other words, are you going to put a six-month time frame on this, or a 12-month time frame on this?"
Bush's answer: "Look, I understand the pressures to put timetables out there on everything. And my answer to you is, is that we will work with the Iraqi government to do what's realistic. And the people on the ground will help me understand what is realistic. We will know whether or not the government is capable of following through because we're going to help them follow through....(W)e've got to be realistic with this government. There is a -- but, nevertheless, I do believe that it makes sense to develop with them benchmarks, so we can measure progress. And once those are in place, and to the extent they are, we'll be glad to share them with you."
In other words, Bush can't offer a time frame, and he can't say how progress will be measured, but if those criteria are established at some point, "we'll be glad to share them with you."
Hence, the paradox in Bush's message: On the one hand, he repeatedly contended today that, from now on, the proverbial ball is in the Iraqis' court, that it's their responsibility to sort out their own future: "If the Iraqis don't have the will to succeed, they're not going to succeed....(I)f they choose not to...make the hard decisions and to implement a plan, they're not going to make it....(I)t's up to them to succeed. It's really up to them to put a plan in place and execute it."
But on the other hand, he signaled that his administration is really not entrusting (or even expecting) the new regime to sort out its own future, because apparently the U.S. will be backstopping the Iraqis all the way, with an open-ended commitment. He stated: "The policy of the United States government is to stand with this new government and help them succeed, and we will do what it takes to help them succeed."
Are there opportunities for the Democrats to effectively counter the President's latest "be patient" message? To provide an alternative war path, for Americans who are hungering for something new? It would seem so. But, for the Bush White House, those ever-squabbling Democrats -- a roomful of liberals booed Hillary Clinton yesterday because she opposes a troop withdrawal timetable -- continue to be the gift that keeps on giving.